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Do you see that splendid equipage, a brougham painted a dark brown color, but with the arms of an ancient and noble family shining from the panels? As it rolls past, all the shop-girls admire it, and look longingly at the yellow satin lining, the rugs from la Savonnerie, the daintiness and freshness of every detail, the silken cushions and tightly-fitting glass windows. Two liveried footmen are mounted behind this aristocratic carriage; and within, a head lies back among the silken cushions, the feverish face and hollow eyes of Raphael, melancholy and sad. Emblem of the doom of wealth! He flies across Paris like a rocket, and reaches the peristyle of the Theatre Favart. The passers-by make way for him; the two footmen help him to alight, an envious crowd looking on the while.
"What has that fellow done to be so rich?" asks a poor law-student, who cannot listen to the magical music of Rossini for lack of a five-franc piece.
Raphael walked slowly along the gangway; he expected no enjoyment from these pleasures he had once coveted so eagerly. In the interval before the second act of Semiramide he walked up and down in the lobby, and along the corridors, leaving his box, which he had not yet entered, to look after itself. The instinct of property was dead within him already. Like all invalids, he thought of nothing but his own sufferings. He was leaning against the chimney-piece in the greenroom. A group had gathered about it of dandies, young and old, of ministers, of peers without peerages, and peerages without peers, for so the Revolution of July had ordered matters. Among a host of adventurers and journalists, in fact, Raphael beheld a strange, unearthly figure a few paces away among the crowd. He went towards this grotesque object to see it better, half-closing his eyes with exceeding superciliousness.
"What a wonderful bit of painting!" he said to himself. The stranger's hair and eyebrows and a Mazarin tuft on the chin had been dyed black, but the result was a spurious, glossy, purple tint that varied its hues according to the light; the hair had been too white, no doubt, to take the preparation. Anxiety and cunning were depicted in the narrow, insignificant face, with its wrinkles incrusted by thick layers of red and white paint. This red enamel, lacking on some portions of his face, strongly brought out his natural feebleness and livid hues. It was impossible not to smile at this visage with the protuberant forehead and pointed chin, a face not unlike those grotesque wooden figures that German herdsmen carve in their spare moments.
An attentive observer looking from Raphael to this elderly Adonis would have remarked a young man's eyes set in a mask of age, in the case of the Marquis, and in the other case the dim eyes of age peering forth from behind a mask of youth. Valentin tried to recollect when and where he had seen this little old man before. He was thin, fastidiously cravatted, booted and spurred like one-and-twenty; he crossed his arms and clinked his spurs as if he possessed all the wanton energy of youth. He seemed to move about without constraint or difficulty. He had carefully buttoned up his fashionable coat, which disguised his powerful, elderly frame, and gave him the appearance of an antiquated coxcomb who still follows the fashions.
For Raphael this animated puppet possessed all the interest of an apparition. He gazed at it as if it had been some smoke-begrimed Rembrandt, recently restored and newly framed. This idea found him a clue to the truth among his confused recollections; he recognized the dealer in antiquities, the man to whom he owed his calamities!
A noiseless laugh broke just then from the fantastical personage, straightening the line of his lips that stretched across a row of artificial teeth. That laugh brought out, for Raphael's heated fancy, a strong resemblance between the man before him and the type of head that painters have assigned to Goethe's Mephistopheles. A crowd of superstitious thoughts entered Raphael's sceptical mind; he was convinced of the powers of the devil and of all the sorcerer's enchantments embodied in mediaeval tradition, and since worked up by poets. Shrinking in horror from the destiny of Faust, he prayed for the protection of Heaven with all the ardent faith of a dying man in God and the Virgin. A clear, bright radiance seemed to give him a glimpse of the heaven of Michael Angelo or of Raphael of Urbino: a venerable white-bearded man, a beautiful woman seated in an aureole above the clouds and winged cherub heads. Now he had grasped and received the meaning of those imaginative, almost human creations; they seemed to explain what had happened to him, to leave him yet one hope.
But when the greenroom of the Italiens returned upon his sight he beheld, not the Virgin, but a very handsome young person. The execrable Euphrasia, in all the splendor of her toilette, with its orient pearls, had come thither, impatient for her ardent, elderly admirer. She was insolently exhibiting herself with her defiant face and glittering eyes to an envious crowd of stockbrokers, a visible testimony to the inexhaustible wealth that the old dealer permitted her to squander.
Raphael recollected the mocking wish with which he had accepted the old man's luckless gift, and tasted all the sweets of revenge when he beheld the spectacle of sublime wisdom fallen to such a depth as this, wisdom for which such humiliation had seemed a thing impossible. The centenarian greeted Euphrasia with a ghastly smile, receiving her honeyed words in reply. He offered her his emaciated arm, and went twice or thrice round the greenroom with her; the envious glances and compliments with which the crowd received his mistress delighted him; he did not see the scornful smiles, nor hear the caustic comments to which he gave rise.
"In what cemetery did this young ghoul unearth that corpse of hers?" asked a dandy of the Romantic faction.
Euphrasia began to smile. The speaker was a slender, fair-haired youth, with bright blue eyes, and a moustache. His short dress coat, hat tilted over one ear, and sharp tongue, all denoted the species.
"How many old men," said Raphael to himself, "bring an upright, virtuous, and hard-working life to a close in folly! His feet are cold already, and he is making love."
"Well, sir," exclaimed Valentin, stopping the merchant's progress, while he stared hard at Euphrasia, "have you quite forgotten the stringent maxims of your philosophy?"
"Ah, I am as happy now as a young man," said the other, in a cracked voice. "I used to look at existence from a wrong standpoint. One hour of love has a whole life in it."
The playgoers heard the bell ring, and left the greenroom to take their places again. Raphael and the old merchant separated. As he entered his box, the Marquis saw Foedora sitting exactly opposite to him on the other side of the theatre. The Countess had probably only just come, for she was just flinging off her scarf to leave her throat uncovered, and was occupied with going through all the indescribable manoeuvres of a coquette arranging herself. All eyes were turned upon her. A young peer of France had come with her; she asked him for the lorgnette she had given him to carry. Raphael knew the despotism to which his successor had resigned himself, in her gestures, and in the way she treated her companion. He was also under the spell no doubt, another dupe beating with all the might of a real affection against the woman's cold calculations, enduring all the tortures from which Valentin had luckily freed himself.
Foedora's face lighted up with indescribable joy. After directing her lorgnette upon every box in turn, to make a rapid survey of all the dresses, she was conscious that by her toilette and her beauty she had eclipsed the loveliest and best-dressed women in Paris. She laughed to show her white teeth; her head with its wreath of flowers was never still, in her quest of admiration. Her glances went from one box to another, as she diverted herself with the awkward way in which a Russian princess wore her bonnet, or over the utter failure of a bonnet with which a banker's daughter had disfigured herself.
All at once she met Raphael's steady gaze and turned pale, aghast at the intolerable contempt in her rejected lover's eyes. Not one of her exiled suitors had failed to own her power over them; Valentin alone was proof against her attractions. A power that can be defied with impunity is drawing to its end. This axiom is as deeply engraved on the heart of woman as in the minds of kings. In Raphael, therefore, Foedora saw the deathblow of her influence and her ability to please. An epigram of his, made at the Opera the day before, was already known in the salons of Paris. The biting edge of that terrible speech had already given the Countess an incurable wound. We know how to cauterize a wound, but we know of no treatment as yet for the stab of a phrase. As every other woman in the house looked by turns at her and at the Marquis, Foedora would have consigned them all to the oubliettes of some Bastille; for in spite of her capacity for dissimulation, her discomfiture was discerned by her rivals. Her unfailing consolation had slipped from her at last. The delicious thought, "I am the most beautiful," the thought that at all times had soothed every mortification, had turned into a lie.
At the opening of the second act a woman took up her position not very far from Raphael, in a box that had been empty hitherto. A murmur of admiration went up from the whole house. In that sea of human faces there was a movement of every living wave; all eyes were turned upon the stranger lady. The applause of young and old was so prolonged, that when the orchestra began, the musicians turned to the audience to request silence, and then they themselves joined in the plaudits and swelled the confusion. Excited talk began in every box, every woman equipped herself with an opera glass, elderly men grew young again, and polished the glasses of their lorgnettes with their gloves. The enthusiasm subsided by degrees, the stage echoed with the voices of the singers, and order reigned as before. The aristocratic section, ashamed of having yielded to a spontaneous feeling, again assumed their wonted politely frigid manner. The well-to-do dislike to be astonished at anything; at the first sight of a beautiful thing it becomes their duty to discover the defect in it which absolves them from admiring it,--the feeling of all ordinary minds. Yet a few still remained motionless and heedless of the music, artlessly absorbed in the delight of watching Raphael's neighbor.
Valentin noticed Taillefer's mean, obnoxious countenance by Aquilina's side in a lower box, and received an approving smirk from him. Then he saw Emile, who seemed to say from where he stood in the orchestra, "Just look at that lovely creature there, close beside you!" Lastly, he saw Rastignac, with Mme. de Nucingen and her daughter, twisting his gloves like a man in despair, because he was tethered to his place, and could not leave it to go any nearer to the unknown fair divinity.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac